The sunwings have followed me onto the deck and they hover around my shoulders like large, bright wasps, their wings a humming blur. I try walk carefully, one foot neat in front of the other, with the shawl of birds streaming out behind me. I’m thankful that they take some of the attention off my awkward lander’s walk. Already the women of Yuliu boat find me pitiful and strange – an old maid at twenty-seven given to raging headaches that leave her bedridden for days. A pathetic thing, What skills does she bring, they ask themselves,
What skills indeed. I embroider. It’s a quiet art, suitable for land-locked virgin aunties in stone towers. But it’s also a valuable skill, given to those with magic in their hearts.
This is why they tolerate me on their ship. Their ship. It’s hardly mine. The elders of Yuliu are swapping my brother out to Song and I am the burden that travels with him. Poor little Pil. There are enough herders here and he is young and small of a weak green tendril of the Yuliu clan. The girl coming from Song is a good hand with the beasts, they say. The swap is a convenient one. Song gets a new apprentice-driver in exchange for the girl Galeka, and Yuliu can be rid of me in the bargain.
Aunty is dead and my protection is gone. And Pil is just a boy who cannot yet see that the old men and women are trading him off to get rid of the bad luck I will bring.
“Kara!” Pil says. “Look!”
And I do. I have never been to the Island of Shadows. The crescent bay is heaving with estate-boats, like a vast pod of black oil-whales coming to shallow water to calve. They are decked out in tribal flags, family colours and talent-crests, waving bands of bright-dyed silk rectangles that hang from braided sisal ropes. There are iron and ivory bells, some as big as pots and others like strands of little thimbles, and their clanking and calling mingles with the cheers and shouts of the people greeting long-left cousins, exclaiming over growing children, woven cloths, new strings of silvery-grey pearls, beaten gold earrings. Over it all comes the occasional sudden high trumpeting of waders entering their mating season, the thrash of water as a fight begins.
People are making bets, handing out ivory tokens, mother of pearl tokens, the white disks of kreukel-doors.
The shallow waters of the bay are a startling blue like the breast feathers of an island quail-finch in spring, but they are also still and clear, and the bronze shadows of fish dart between the boats as they scavenge for fallen food. Behind the clatter of the boats, a ridged beach rises white-gold to a a low dune forest thick with gnarled little trees and tough grasses. A tower of cliff juts up behind the forest, its black-wet stone studded with moss green and ringing with the high screeching calls of gulls and terns. Their teeming white wings circle the mountain shoulders.
My feet itch to be on stone, not polished wood over water. I take Pil’s hand and let him lead me through the throng. My other hand presses the amulet under my shift, pushing the ridges against my skin. The dead are all asleep and locked away in their iron-lined kists. I am as safe as stone towers. “Tell me which is to be ours.” I say. I have studied flags from the ink-drawing scrolls in Aunty’s house, but they were never that interesting to me. I always preferred her bird scrolls, her leaf-and-flower scrolls – things I could use when I embroidered the hems and sleeves of the robes Aunty brought me.
Yuliu’s flag at least holds my interest a little: a leaping silver-and-black marlin on silk dyed sky-cerulean. Song – Song I do know, but with a million rippling squares of silk in every shade, I cannot spot them. I still myself, like I do when I want the island birds to come to me. The sunwings settle soft on my shoulders and sleeves, their claws like beetle legs through the silk.
“There.” Pil points to a vast ebony estate-boat as long as a southern sea-drake and half as wide again, approaching from the sea. Song. Mighty Song, where Pil and I will just be two useless tokens; kreukel-doors, common as kelp.